For any critic of modern America, Wal-Mart is an easy target. (There is a pun there somewhere.)
Begun by Sam Walton in 1962 in Bentonville, Arkansas, Wal-Mart has grown to such proportions that there are now 4,700 stores all over the world, with over 1.3 million employees. It has such economic dominance in America that it owns 30% of the consumer staples market and almost 20% of all music and video sales. Even big companies like Clorox, Del Monte and Dial make a quarter of their yearly sales through Wal-Mart.
This conglomerate has closely followed John D. Rockefeller’s dictum, “Competition is a sin.” All across America, small, locally-owned shops in quaint downtowns have been boarded up, swallowed by the Whale-Mart that surfaced from a sea of blacktop just beyond the city limits. City councils try to find ways to stop Wal-Mart from marching into their communities, but (new metaphor) an elephant tends to sit wherever it wants. Now the medium-sized retailers are also being crushed.
Most of us are probably familiar with the litany of accusations against Wal-Mart. This includes not just bad publicity and snobbish complaints, but charges of serious corruption and villainy. A class action suit was filed in early November 2003 against Wal-Mart after a Federal 21-state raid arrested 250 illegal immigrants working as janitors in 60 stores. In Southern California, over seventy thousand striking grocery workers blame Wal-Mart’s predatory ways for forcing the three other major supermarket chains to cut their health benefits. Also, there are notorious accounts of Wal-Mart’s efforts to stop or hinder unionizing activities among its workers.
Defenders of the biggest of the big box retailers say this is simply the free market in action. But it isn’t. It is the Servile State in action. It is the unholy marriage of Big Business and Big Government. What the defenders of the “free” market either don’t know or don’t mention is that Wal-Mart costs taxpayers a lot of money because of its rock bottom wage levels. According to one congressional report, taxpayers pay around $420,000 a year for each Wal-Mart store employing 200 people. The costs include money for Section 8 housing assistance, free lunch programs, tax credits for low-income families, education funds and subsidies for energy assistance.
Capitalism creates holes; Socialism fills them. It’s a fascinating equation. You stretch that dollar to buy as much Chinese-made merchandise as possible and your taxes will take care of the clerk. The prices are cheap, the products are cheap, the workers are cheap, and Sam Walton’s widow and four children have a combined net worth of $100 billion. Is this a great country or what?
The plodding assault of a giant retailer is not exactly a new phenomenon. G.K. Chesterton eloquently expressed his scorn for the big shops in Utopia of Usurers:
The big commercial concerns of today are quite exceptionally incompetent. They will be even more incompetent when they are omnipotent. Indeed, that is, and always has been, the whole point of a monopoly; the old and sound argument against a monopoly. It is only because it is incompetent that it has to be omnipotent.
So, can anything be done about this?
Two things would help: The Leftist elite could stop calling on the Government to bust up Wal-Mart. And the Rightist elite could stop excusing everything that Wal-Mart does. But since neither of those things is going to happen, it is up to us common folk to clean up the mess that we have created.
Yes, we created it. You see, Wal-Mart does not get all the blame, even if it gets all the money. We are the ones who keep giving it all that money. In our lust for the lowest price, we have (third and last metaphor) created a monster. We have fed the monster. And now the monster is eating our villages.
If you know anything about monsters, you know that they usually have to be destroyed by torch-carrying citizens from the town, that is, by people who suddenly wake up and realize that have to regain control of their lives. Self-government means self-control. It applies to commerce as much as it does to politics.
We have to limit what we buy and we have to be more selective about where we buy it. Whenever possible, we have to support the smaller, locally-owned business. Whenever possible, we have to be the smaller, locally-owned business. We have to hold local government accountable. We have to be local government. We have to explain this to other people. We have to wake them up and give them a torch and tell them to join us. Tell them people about the common-sense vision of Distributism. Mention Gilbert Magazine perhaps.
It is not the government that is going to fix this problem. Or a market adjustment. It is you. And you. And you.